BBC One’s Animal Park returns for its 20th series this week, with Kate Humble back at Longleat in Wiltshire to visit its array of fascinating animals.
Kate, 54, who launched the show back in 2000, admits that she’s starting to feel like “everybody’s great-granny”.
“It’s like a family reunion, because a lot of these animals and keepers I’ve known for a very, very long time,” she says. “The thing that keeps me coming back is they feel like extended family now.”
The series follows the lives of the keepers and animals at Longleat Safari and Adventure Park, from the endangered Amur tigers to an elephant rescued from the circus.
Over the years, Kate has seen the arrival of many new residents and in this series she celebrates a landmark with two big cats with whom she has a long history.
“We celebrate the 18th birthday of Jasira and Malaika, who are two female lions, and I was there when they were born,” she says.
It’s not just her animal friends that bring Kate back to the show year after year, but also her colleagues. Ben Fogle joined Animal Park in 2001 and hosted alongside Kate for the rest of the original nine-year run before returning for the show’s revival in 2016.
“It’s lovely because we’ve effectively grown up together,” says Kate. “We were both right at the beginning of our careers then and have honed our skills. It’s just been a lovely two-decade journey together.”
In the new series, the duo renew their acquaintance with some of Longleat’s most celebrated inhabitants, including a pack of wolves with a penchant for attempting escapes and a rarely spotted pair of hippos.
But it was the park’s koalas that won Kate’s affections this series – all because they wouldn’t co-operate with their camera crew. “I met Monty, the first male southern koala born in Europe, and he is completely adorable. I defy anyone with the hardest of hearts not to be won over by this little thing,” she says.
“We did have this lovely moment which I think is proof that the animals are always in charge. We were doing a health check with Monty, but he had completely different ideas. All our plans went to the wall because Monty decided that he would have more fun playing around with his sister, driving her completely mad and riding on her back.”
Saving species is also on the agenda. In an earlier series, Kate visited South Africa with a keeper to collect four southern white rhinos and she says, “If it hadn’t been for collections like Longleat’s, we wouldn’t have southern white rhino left.”
Fans will know it’s not only Kate and Ben in the presenting pack, with Springwatch’s Megan McCubbin and Strictly winner Hamza Yassin also on board. “I think we all bring something different, which allows Animal Park to be a series that still seems to appeal to people of every age and every demographic,” Kate says.
With filming going on in different areas of the park at the same time, she doesn’t see Megan and Hamza much.
“It is absolutely crazy,” she admits. “We don’t actually meet up at all when we’re filming, which is a real shame.”
While Kate doesn’t see Hamza often, she did watch him every night on last year’s Strictly, which he won with professional Jowita Przystal. Has his success convinced her to sign up this year?
“I was asked to do Strictly quite a long time ago and I turned it down because I have a fear of sequins and I only ever wear wellies or running shoes,” she laughs.
“But to see somebody like Hamza – a fantastically rufty-tufty wildlife guy who’s walking around with a massive camera on his shoulder and getting incredibly excited about birds – I think he surprised me that actually people like him and me
could potentially dance.”
However, Strictly fans shouldn’t get their hopes up. “I don’t think I could ever dance like him. I did ballet lessons at school and I was told when I was about eight that I was like one of those hippopotamuses from Fantasia,” Kate adds.
“I think I’ll just stick to stamping around the countryside being grubby, admiring the transformation of everybody else – but I can still do fifth position!”
Animal Park airs on Monday 7th August at 1:45pm on BBC One.
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